Old Testament: Isaiah (9:2-7)
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
The Response: Psalm 96
1 Sing to the Lord a new song; *
sing to the Lord, all the whole earth.
2 Sing to the Lord and bless his Name; *
proclaim the good news of his salvation from day to day.
3 Declare his glory among the nations *
and his wonders among all peoples.
4 For great is the Lord and greatly to be praised; *
he is more to be feared than all gods.
5 As for all the gods of the nations, they are but idols; *
but it is the Lord who made the heavens.
6 Oh, the majesty and magnificence of his presence! *
Oh, the power and the splendor of his sanctuary!
7 Ascribe to the Lord, you families of the peoples; *
ascribe to the Lord honor and power.
8 Ascribe to the Lord the honor due his Name; *
bring offerings and come into his courts.
9 Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness; *
let the whole earth tremble before him.
10 Tell it out among the nations: “The Lord is King! *
he has made the world so firm that it cannot be moved;
he will judge the peoples with equity.”
11 Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad;
let the sea thunder and all that is in it; *
let the field be joyful and all that is therein.
12 Then shall all the trees of the wood shout for joy
before the Lord when he comes, *
when he comes to judge the earth.
13 He will judge the world with righteousness *
and the peoples with his truth.
The Epistle: Titus (2:11-14)
The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.
The Gospel: Luke (2:1-20)
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
If we look for a description of Jesus’ birth, or even a mere mention of it, in writings that are contemporary with that event, we find absolutely nothing. Even if we expand our search to include the years and decades that follow, we still come up empty-handed. The first reference that we have comes some 50-60 years later in St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (4:4), in which Paul “helpfully” informs us that Jesus was, of all things, “born of a woman” – gee, thanks, Paul; we never would have guessed that if you hadn’t told us!
It wasn’t until 80 or 90 years after the first Christmas that we have the familiar birth narratives in the gospels according to Matthew and Luke. And even then, Luke’s version, which we heard again this evening, tells a completely different story from Matthew’s version (with the magi and the star) that we will hear again a week from Sunday. These well-loved and timeless accounts have filled people’s hearts and inspired their imaginations for 1900 years. They are priceless religious and narrative treasures. But it seems fairly clear that they do not provide eyewitness accounts of what actually happened. Instead, they employ a rich panoply of images to inspire us with the significance of Jesus’ birth. They lie at the very heart of our Christmas celebration. But they are well worth our reflection throughout the rest of the year as well because each of them essentially provides its entire gospel’s story in miniature.
For Jesus’ family, his birth was undoubtedly a great event, just as a birth is for every family. But for everybody else living there and then, it seems to have been just an ordinary occurrence: just another newborn, Jewish child like all the others who were born in Palestine that day. We have no idea, of course, what day Jesus was born or even the season of the year, much less the time of the day or night. For those who lived in that time and place, it passed by as just another ordinary event, on some very ordinary day, in the lives of some very ordinary people. But for us who acknowledge Jesus as God’s Messiah and who see his life as the source of new life for all the world, maybe its ordinariness is actually one of the most important things about it.
Many people in our world seem to associate religious faith with a belief in a god who periodically overturns the laws of nature and dramatically intervenes in human history. They cling tenaciously to accounts of spectacular and supposedly undeniable miracles, or of attention-grabbing visions, or to practices that border on, and all too often cross over into, the realm of magic and superstition. It is no wonder that such a view of what religious faith is all about drives away many educated, intelligent people.
But the real message of the incarnation, the real message of Christmas, has nothing to do with such attempts to escape the realities of the everyday world in which you and I and the rest of the human race live. On the contrary, the real message of the incarnation, the real message of Christmas, is the story of the God who has entered into and who continues to enter into our ordinary, everyday lives. And it is in our ordinary, everyday lives, enlivened by the presence of the divine, that God is at work today, transforming and giving life to us and, through us, to the rest of the seemingly ordinary world in which we live. We tend to see our world as markedly unspectacular; but, as Gerard Manley Hopkins famously insisted, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”
Recently, I decided to clean out some old notes that I had used over the years in our Adult Forum. Among them was an article that George John had provided during a series that he and I did on “Science and Religion.” It gave an introduction to chaos theory, beginning with mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz’ description of what he called “the butterfly effect.” Some of you, I am sure, are familiar with it.
Lorenz used the example of a single butterfly, flapping its wings. That tiny motion changes the flow of the very tiny quantity of air around it. But that change, in turn, affects an increasingly large quantity of air, and on and on and on. Days or weeks later, that effect is a determining factor in whether or not a tornado develops, perhaps hundreds of miles away. The principle that he described affirms that small causes can have much larger effects.
That principle holds true, not just in the prediction of weather patterns, but also in the seemingly ordinary situations in which you and I find ourselves each day. The small choices that we make, empowered by the presence of God living and working within us, the Word made flesh, can make a significant difference in other people’s lives and in the life of our world.
Jesus, whose birth we celebrate here this evening, understood that; and he lived it in his everyday life. Instead of simply pretending, for example, not to hear the cry of a group of lepers, he turned toward them and gave them new life and hope. Instead of following his disciples’ advice to send away the Syro-Phoenician woman, whose daughter was seriously ill, he listened as she pointed out to him how wrong his initial response to her had been; he learned something, and he brought healing both to her and to her daughter. Instead of acceding to the demands of his critics and keeping his distance from those who were known as “tax collectors and sinners,” he accepted their invitation to sit down and eat with them; and, in doing so, he came to know them, and he touched their lives in a lasting way and came to include them among his earliest followers. These were all small, very ordinary decisions that he made; and yet they changed lives, and ultimately they changed the world.
The same is true of us. The small choices that we make, in the course of the ordinary days of our lives, can make a significant difference in the lives of others. When, for example, we go out of our way to treat a worker or fellow customer in a store with dignity and respect, maybe someone who is struggling in ways we do not know, the Word is made flesh in us, and Christmas comes once more. When we make an effort to reach out in acceptance and welcome to someone of a different race, or religion, or sexual orientation – even when it might be a bit uncomfortable for us – the Word is made flesh in us, and Christmas comes once more. When we put aside our own interests and go out and volunteer our time and attention in serving the hungry in our neighborhoods or the children in our schools or the homeless in our streets, the Word is made flesh in us, and Christmas comes once more. The small, seemingly ordinary decisions that you and I make on a daily basis can make significant differences in peoples’ lives. They can allow God to take on flesh – our flesh — in the lives of those we serve. And in doing so, we reflect and proclaim the glory of the God who makes the ordinary sacred.
Like the son of God, whose birth we are celebrating here tonight, we, who are all daughters and sons of God, bear within us the life of the divine. Jesus’ birth, in all its ordinariness, proclaims to us eloquently the sacredness of the ordinary. For it is in us, and in the seemingly ordinary choices that you and I make on each and every ordinary day, that we allow God’s eternal Word to be made flesh in us and in our world and in our time and in the people whose lives we touch. It is in that ongoing incarnation, in that continuing entry of God into the world each day, that Christmas never ends. And that is still “good news of great joy for all the people.”